Friday, July 4, 2014

Free Thinking on July 4th

The skies are blue this morning, Hurricane Arthur having just grazed us yesterday afternoon and evening. On this July 4th holiday, the sky is not the deep sharp blue of the American flag, but a light Carolina blue - a gentler, less bold blue.  I like this color.

And I like the Carolina blue side of America, if you know what I mean.  I like the kinder, gentler face of our country and culture.  I like it when we are the helper and not the aggressor, the hugger and not the shover, the dreamer and not the "no"-sayer.

It doesn't mean I'm not proud of my country, and it doesn't mean I don't like the color of our flag.  It just means I think America is strongest, at its best, when we're not pushy...when we're not too bold.

Now that I've said my piece, I think I will go change in to my red, white, and blue and enjoy the rest of my day, thankful that the storm didn't cause too much damange, and eterally grateful that I'm free to think and speak my thoughts.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making a Whirlpool

In Japanese school, the beginning of summer in June did not usher in a three month hiatus from school work. Although we did get Natsuyasumi (Summer Vacation) in August, we attended school through the hot months of June and July, sweating in sweltering classrooms where an empty cast iron stove had held hot coal nuggests only a few months earlier.   Now, in the oppressive heat, windows were opened as wide as they could like gaping mouths, as if the classroom itself was gasping for air to breathe.

Our school, Takayama Elementary, was a lucky one.  We had a pool that we shared with neighboring elementary schools whose students walked some distances to get to our school for the experience.  A couple times a week in June and July, we walked ourselves, but only down the hallway in our uniform bathing suits. We descended the metal staircases outside the building to the glorious sparkling swimming pool that called out to us each and every day.  It was all we could do to stay silent as we walked past the classrooms of other jealous schoolmates when it was our turn to enjoy the pool.  Then, for two wonderful hours of refreshing fun, we were divided into groups according to ability, and we were taught how to swim.

I remember lying on my belly on the rough cement deck with my classmates, as we made our legs into little frog kicks and practiced the breast stroke.  But the best part of all came toward the very end of the two hours when we had free swim and when we made the whirlpool.

Try to imagine 120 children (all three classes of 5th or 6th grades) lining the sides of a pool facing the same direction.  All of us, swimmers and non-swimmers alike participated, since this was basically a walk in the water.  We put one hand on the side of the pool and waited anxiously for the whistle to send us on our way. One of the teachers stood on the starting block and blew the whislte loud, the squeal of the whistle drowned out immediately by our own jubilent voices.

On cue, we started moving forward, all of us in the same direction on the periphery of the pool, and we began to churn the water.  Within seconds, our movements became less labored, as the current we made in the pool carried us along, all the while pushing, pushing the water forward as we began to run along the bottom making the current stronger and faster.  Soon our bodies flew, one step taking us dozens of feet, our bodies crashing in to one another, and we laughed uncontrollably.  It was almost time for the next whistle.

The next whistle meant it was time to change direction.  When we heard the shrill sound, we turned around and tried to move in the opposite direction.  The current wouldn't allow it, and bodies struggled to change the tide, as some smaller friends floated past me in vain.  Once again, after moments of struggling against water that crashed against us, we were able to create a strong current, this time in another direction.

The saddest current was the one which led us back to the classroom where we changed back in to our regular school clothes, boys first, then the girls, and we settled once again in to writing our kanji characters or doing long division.  Memories of being carried by the current in my school's pool on those hot days of June and July still bring up the corners of my lips.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Missing New Year's Omochi

New Year's Day is the quietest day of the year in Japan.  Nothing moves.  Buses and trains come to a stand still, no stores are open, and women even stop cooking for the day.  They have precooked meals for the three to four days ahead, and have stored these different foods beautifully presented in square lacquer boxes that stack up.  All the women need to do for the first few days of each new year, a rare well-deserved break, is to measure rice into the rice cooker and hit the "on" button so there will be rice to eat with the dishes in the boxes.

In the nine years we lived in Japan, I can only remember a handful of Japanese homes we were actually invited inside.  It is a real honor to be invited inside - not just for foreigners, but for anyone. There was one family, the Nakamuras, (the same family of the babysitter who knocked over our Christmas tree,) who welcomed the two gaijin (foreign) children into their home on New Year's Day every year.  Mom made us wait until after Noon so they would have at least a morning of peace.  We skipped around the corner of our silent street, past the big Japanese flag one of our neighbors hung outside their wall to the Nakamura's house and climbed the stairs to their gate.

I don't know if the Nakamura Family was happy to see us on New Year's Day, but they sure acted like they were glad when we showed up.   Mrs. Nakamura still wore a kimono every day.  When we arrived, their family was usually gathered around their low table, sitting on square zabuton pillows, and David and I joined them after climbing up into their house after removing our shoes.  We went right to the table without being asked, showing the real purpose of why we had come.  We came for the omochi.

Omochi is rice that has been pounded and pounded and pounded into a sticky gooey dense cake. The Nakamuras kept a little grill on top of their small table at New Years, and Mrs. Nakamura offered David and me a piece or two.  Of course we agreed, since that was why we had come.  She placed a couple of pieces on the grill, and we waited with anticipation, just like the rest of the Nakamuras, for the pieces to puff up, turning from a hard brick to the gooey, chewy treat.  As it cooked, Mrs. Nakamura warned us about eating it too fast, telling us about the number of Japanese people who had died the previous New Year holiday choking on omochi.

When the omochi was ready, puffing up to double its size, a round air bubble poofing in the middle and the bottom turning a crispy brown, she used her chopsticks to place the hot piece on top of a piece of nori (seaweed) on a plate for each of us, and gave us some shoyu (soy sauce) to dip it in.  Then they watched us eat it, all the Nakamuras, smiling at our pleasure.  What a show we must have provided.

I am missing omochi today.  I can buy it at Saigon Market, the oriental food store, but I can't make it like Mrs. Nakamura did, kneeling next to us in her gray kimono, her hair pulled back in a bun.